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Volume 16, Issue 5: Recipio

Cheese Equals Gravitas

Ben Merkle

His name was Laurent, but in France it is pronounced as if the speaker's head is being stomped on half-way through. Somewhere around the "r" everything goes nasal and unrecognizable. He had a laugh that was half bleating and half honking and never seemed to be triggered by humor. No matter how hilarious the situation was, he was placid. But every now and then a comment about the lower classes or the non-French (present company excluded—he was quite kind to us) would send him into a spasm of snorts that sounded like a flock of easily excited geese passing overhead.

His wife Sybille had been our tour guide and host all day. She had taken me, my wife, and our three-month-old baby girl to the top of the Arc de Triomphe earlier in the morning. We had some difficulty figuring out how to cross the enormous traffic circle surrounding the Arc. Sybille had never been in the Arc despite living a couple blocks from it. How odd to live in Paris for years, two blocks from the famous monument, and never visit it. I, in pity, offered to show her the Eiffel Tower. I finally found some stairs leading down into a tunnel that went under the traffic circle and came up in the Arc. A long hike and we were finally at the top. No wonder Sybille had never been. It was all Americans up there. One couple painfully mimed to me that they wanted me to take their picture. I didn't break it to them that I was fluent in their native tongue of American and obligingly took their picture without even curling my lip. Sybille took ours. On the way back down we looked at the various exhibits inside the Arc. A black and white photo of a security guard caught my eye. He was fairly round and dressed in a uniform that made him look like a bellhop. He wore a cranky self-important scowl, had his hands behind his back, and leaned slightly forward as if anxious to tell us to move along, nothing to see here. I pointed out the picture to my wife, which she found comical. Sybille came over, and we showed her the picture. She acknowledged that he was a bit self-important, but didn't see anything humorous about it.
I practiced pronouncing "Arc de Triomphe" for the rest of the day. Try as I might, I didn't have near enough phlegm to get the "r." But Sybille smiled graciously and said it again and again for me to imitate as we walked down the Champs-Elysese. It was the summer of the famous heat wave. I heard later that the deaths due to heat set records that summer. The French don't have air conditioners. It's too American. Like the top of the Arc. We spent our time looking for bottled water and trying to make sure that our baby wasn't dehydrating. We were American. I wore shorts and white socks and couldn't say "r" right. They were French. They went sockless and pronounced "merci" as if a caterpillar was tangled up in their tonsils.
Sybille was kind to us, but she was merciless with the French. "Oh, these French people!" she would exclaim with disgust as we walked down the street. When walking on the bank of the Seine the day before, a man in a van had swerved at us for fun. We had all jumped and Laurent had run screaming obscenities after the man. How I know they were obscenities, I'm not sure. Some things are just intuitive. "These French people!" Sybille had exclaimed. Now we were looking for a café for lunch. Again Sybille was fed up with her countrymen. "Too loud, too obnoxious," she explained, pointing out how each café we passed was insufficient for our needs. Her patience wore thin with her countrymen. I think that is the center of the French spirit. They all feel this way about one another. From the security guard in the picture to the hit-and-run driver of the van. "These French people!" they all scream.
In the café Sybille ordered for us. I walked up and down the street outside with our crying baby until the food came and the baby was asleep. My plate turned out to be covered with a large pile of chopped up tomatoes. I'm really not a tomato man, and my wife gave me that knowing look of concern. But I showed her I was still a Marine, smiled, and took a big bite. Amazing. I had been far too critical of these French people. They had actually found a way to make tomatoes taste fantastic. All the terrible tomato taste had been magically transformed into something unspeakably pleasurable. I tore through the dish in no time. I finally asked Sybille if she knew how the dish was prepared. I shouldn't have asked that. Never ask that in a French café. It wasn't tomatoes. It was raw hamburger. These French people!
That night at dinner I was a little more involved in the ordering process. I looked for something that had clearly been cooked. We were eating in a little restaurant on the roof of a hotel, overlooking Paris. It was a beautiful evening, and we had a view of the entire Parisian skyline. Our baby continued to behave perfectly, and we pretended that our children were always like this. We reminisced about Sybille's stay with my family as an exchange student back in 1985. She remembered going to see Back to the Future with me as well as the American-style screen door on the front of our suburban home. We asked about their lives and were able to fill in the blanks between what we had already figured out. Laurent was from an extremely wealthy family. (Later on they would give us bottles of wine from several of his estates in Bordeaux. The castle on the front of the label was where he grew up.)
The evening was beautiful, but a rainstorm appeared out of nowhere, right as our food arrived. The waiters hurried us all to the elevator and sent us to the restaurant below where our food would be brought. But since our food had been rained on, they had to prepare it all again. We sat and talked some more and Sybille ordered another bottle of champagne. "To calm our nerves from the storm," she explained. The waiter's demeanor reminded me a lot of the security guard in the picture. His English was fine, but seemed to dirty his spirit. I think he might have gone back to bathe after every conversation with me. I pointed out his resemblance to the picture and my wife was amused. Sybille was a bit horrified. Never be critical of the waiter. Laurent explained that the waiter's tip is figured automatically in the bill. Not like in America, where the waiters work for their tip. French waiters are like union workers. Don't mess with them. I kept the rest of my jokes to myself.
The food came in small waves. Most of the courses were fairly small. But they just kept coming. Near the end, the cheese came out. My wife and I had brushed up on our cheeses before we left the States, so we were looking forward to this part. But we discovered ourselves woefully ill-prepared for a true French cheese course. American laws prohibit cheeses made from raw milk unless it has been aged for over sixty days. Plus, Americans just aren't interested in any cheese stronger than cheddar. So there isn't much selection in the States. We think we are exotic when we eat Feta or Parmesan that didn't come in a can.
Our waiter brought out the cheese platter. He offered to my wife first and announced each cheese. He was careful to say all the names as quickly and as far under his breath as possible, so we missed pretty much all of the actual names. My wife made two choices, and then he came to me. I hadn't heard the cheeses named, and so I asked if he could say the names again. He gave a look filled with disgust. His resemblance to the guard intensified and I stifled a snigger. He pretended to repeat the cheese names, but I'm pretty sure that he just repeated the second half of Laurent's name several times. I pointed to a few selections which he then served to me with two knives in chopstick fashion.
It is really difficult to describe a French cheese, especially for an American. I do not suffer from Euro-envy. I dislike soccer. I proudly took my peanut butter with me when I went to Europe. I delight in pulling up my white socks when marching through a crowd of Europeans. I lit off fireworks on the Fourth of July, even though I was in England. But true patriots, those who are secure with their national identity, are not afraid of giving honor where honor is due. European cheese far outclasses all things American. For an American raised on individually wrapped Kraft slices, there are few things more formidable than confronting a genuine Epoisses de Bourgogne (except for, perhaps, attempting to pronounce it). And the cheese course that evening was one of the most intimidating food moments of my European excursion. But it was not the sort of difficulty that I have with raw meat, or even a pile of tomatoes. That is simply a matter of ignoring the taste and forcing it down despite the body's natural reflexes working to bring it back up. I mastered that skill long ago with MREs. But the cheese course was entirely different. It was the sort of difficulty you have when you realize that the football team you will be playing for the next two hours is made up entirely of men twice your size. When I took the first bite I realized that I was grossly outclassed. Each bite had far more taste than I could take and I began to look desperately for all the bread that I could find to defend myself, to spread the cheese out and dilute its power.
Now, when my wife and I talk about France, we laugh about our trip. What was so amazing about Paris? Is the Seine really that impressive and romantic? If you consider a river where grown men have no trouble urinating in front of you amazing, then perhaps it is impressive and romantic. But it didn't have that effect on us. As we discuss our French visit, it always seems that the attitude of superiority that goes with the French was never warranted by most of what we found in France itself. Until we come to the cheese. It was the one thing worthy of their sense of superiority and disdain for the rest of the world. Even the Brie, which was fairly mild in comparison to some of their other champions, sent me reeling. The Brie available in America has a fifth of the flavor. I think something about the French cheese has sunk into their national consciousness and affected them deeply. The French have a deep conviction of their innate betterness which spills into everything they do. And most of it is unfounded. Until you find the very fount of their sophistication. Their cheese is their gravitas, and perhaps a little lipcurling is warranted.
When we returned home, my wife wrote Laurent and Sybille a thank-you note. As a joke, she included a bottle of spray cheese. We thought it would help them appreciate their own cheese more. I imagine Laurent tasting the spray cheese on a baguette. I imagine him with an expression on his face like the security guard in the picture. And I imagine that he didn't laugh at our joke.

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